May 3, 2004

'DINAH WAS' is another big winner for ICT
By Shirle Gottlieb

After winning more nominations for Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle Awards last year than any other company in the Southland, International City Theatre has another sure-fire production on its hands.

This time the blockbuster is "Dinah Was." Written by Oliver Goldstick, this true-life musical dramatization of Dinah Washington's life stars Yvette Freeman, who reprises her sold-out 1996 award-winning role.

Swaddled in floor-length white mink and swigging from a silver flask, Freeman climbs under the skin of the inimitable "Queen of the Blues" to tell her tale in the bawdy, gin-soaked singing style for which Washington was famous on both sides of the Atlantic.

What a powerhouse performance, and what a sensational ensemble fleshes out the drama of Dinah's story. The audience sits mesmerized as four superb actors race through nine different supporting parts under the sensitive direction of caryn desai. Backing them up is a fabulous, five-piece rhythm-and-blues band that is conducted onstage by Lanny Hartley at the piano.

Between Freeman's knock-'em-dead renditions of Dinah's Top-10 hits that include "What a Difference a Day Makes," "I Wanna Be Loved," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Sometimes I" m Happy,'' we learn the bittersweet details of her life from the tender notes through the tough breaks.

Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Dinah began singing in her Baptist church choir when she was a child. In 1942, she was hired by Lionel Hampton to sing in his band, but she left it after four years of touring to carve out a solo career for herself.

During the '50s, she sang blues, standards, novelties and pop songs in both clip joints and prestige clubs across the country. Then in 1959, she crashed through the race barrier to become the first black female artist ever booked to perform on the Las Vegas strip.

Thus begins "Dinah Was." The place is the Sahara Hotel, and though Dinah's appearance has been sold out for weeks in advance, she is not permitted to stay on the premises or even walk through the lobby. At which point she defiantly plunks herself down on her suitcase and the story unfolds.

Darryl Alan Reed is totally convincing as Dinah's independent lover, Chase Adams. A blues musician himself who almost becomes one of her many husbands, Chase buckles under the pressure of Dinah's desperate need for love.

Also excellent are Peter Van Norden (who plays both the sympathetic head of Mercury Records and the bigoted manager of the Sahara Hotel) and Paul Avedisian (whose portrayal of the singer's hard-working agent is marvelous). A sensitive compassionate guy, Rollie bends over backward trying to accommodate his irate client, while maneuvering her through the prejudice of the 1950s.

But it's Sybyl Walker who almost brings the house down. Playing three different roles (Dinah's Bible-thumpin' Mama Jones, her intimidated manager Maye, and the down-trodden waitress, Miss Violet), Walker winds up belting out a "Rockin" Good Way'' duet with Freeman that leaves the audience screaming for more.

All of the music and action take place on Tom Buderwitz's marvelous set under Jeremy Pivnick's dramatic light design, which highlights the glamorous costumes of Garry Lennon and the talents of wig wizard Anthony Gagliardi.


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